Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Criticism as evaluation.

The best article ever written about Christian rock is in this month's issue of GQ (the February one with Jamie Foxx on the cover). Yes, I have a subscription to GQ as well as subscriptions to every other magazine on earth (he said sarcastically but with bits of truth behind it). There's usually one really good article in the magazine, just like Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone...sometimes two, if you pray hard enough. And this month's good article happens to be about one journalist's trip to Creation Fest in Pennsylvania.

Just that GQ sent a writer to Creation should be enough to make you want to read this article, just to see what their angle is. But they actually sent a pretty good writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, who says things like this:

Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies -- "If you like Drakkar Noir, you'll love Sexy Musk?" Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that's proper, because culturally speaking, it's supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that's because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please...while praising Jesus Christ. That's Christian rock.

In other words, it Sam's Choice off-brand blandness. And that's genius writing, encapsulating what makes Christian rock so horrendously unlistenable but so welcomed by parents, youth pastors and churchgoers everywhere. For growing up listening to Christian music, and working at a Christian radio station for a season, I can't believe no one ever summed it up like so. I've never heard it described in exactly that way, but it's the way I will describe Christian rock for the rest of my life.

What drew me into the article was a photo caption that finds itself in part of the article itself. I've never tried explaining praise and worship music to a non-Christian, because it just seems so crazy and churchy and cheesy, that I'm afraid it would scare people away if I told them we sing rock songs to Jesus before the sermon. Sullivan's description builds upon mine and confirms it, making it scarier than ever:

The sound that woke me was a barbaric moan, like that of an army about to charge. Early mornings at Creation were about "Praise and Worship," a new form of Christian rock in which the band and the audience sing, all together, as loud as they can, directly to God.

He makes it sound like a cross between snake handling and a Dashboard show, which probably isn't too far off when you think about it.

But the article takes another turn near the end, when Sullivan reveals that he was into the Christian scene for a while in high school -- a stellar evangelist it seems to boot (he calls it his "Jesus phase"). A funny and informative send-up of Christian music become a story of Sullivan's connection with a group of young men from West Virginia during his trek to Creation; and a buried confession of his love for Jesus of Nazareth after all these years. It's powerful stuff.

And yes, it's in GQ. Maybe go buy it, even though it's about $4 for the whole issue. Maybe don't, and I could hand you a photocopy one of these days. It's really good though, and I can't say enough wonderful things about it. Because I saw myself in him and in the people he was writing about. And finally, I understand why most Christian writers suck so much.

Because we're afraid to be honest about how absurd our religion/faith is. It's funny that it took an article from GQ to help me realize this, but it's true. Christian writers are afraid to be too self-critical because they're afraid of becoming apostates (myself included). Apostates and agnostics don't have those problems, so their insights cut deeper, hurt a little more, and make us face the facts the we Christians do and say some pretty horrible things -- things that seem pretty benign to us -- but that anger and belittle those outside the church.

I don't have any easy answers or quick-fix solutions. But I'm finally beginning to understand that our little evangelical subculture more than simply keeps us overly-safe and cut-off from "the world;" it creates a barrier that some on the outside either cannot or outright refuse to overcome. The second we Christians became a phenomenon that journalists try to understand and figure out is the second we lost our relevance in modern culture. We became like any other American fringe group: Goths. Libertarians. Emo kids. Soccer fans. We lost our footing in culture, then decided the best recourse was to create our own.

So I guess the question is, it is worth it? Protecting Christian kids from Hoobastank while at the same time keeping "seekers" (another horrible term) out?

Based on the success of your local Family Christian Bookstore, I think the answer from most evangelicals is, "Yes, you're damn right it's worth it."

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